Emily Castillo Leon had a plan: join Teach for America for two years then quit the classroom and pursue a career in public relations.
Now 12 years later, Leon is not just in one classroom but leading an entire school.
“I found nothing more rewarding than being in education,” she said. “I went from Teach for America into instructional coaching and joining a founding team of a high school.”
But it was elementary education that fueled her passion.
“I realized that elementary school wasn’t setting kids up for success,” she said. “I thought a great school with great teachers could fill those gaps.”
Last fall, Leon turned an aspiration into a reality when she launched the Ethos Classical Charter School in Atlanta. Based in a former church building, the school was described as “a little liberal arts elementary.”
“Our mission is to provide extraordinary education for every student through a classical curriculum,” said Leon. “We offer concrete skills and knowledge in an environment that celebrates childhood, creativity and growth.”
The program meets those goals by stressing the liberal arts. Four hours a day are devoted to reading instruction alone, and literature plays a significant role in the life of the school.
“It’s intertwined through our culture, weaving a classical thread throughout,” said Leon. “Even our classrooms are named after writers, poets, artists and musicians.”
Taking a classical approach raised questions, Leon admits.
“People asked what the rationale was, and we explained it provides the foundation of a child’s mind – something that has to happen before they jump into STEM,” she said. “How they learn to think must be done through books, conversation and self-understanding.”
That emphasis resonated with Delia Carter, whose daughter, Cicely, was part of the inaugural third grade and is preparing to enter fourth in a few weeks.
“I fell in love with the vision,” said Carter. “We came from a Montessori background and didn’t think we could get that in a charter school. But Ethos has a huge focus on academics and a well-rounded program that takes in the whole student.”
Having a pandemic strike in the school’s first spring hasn’t impacted its future, said Leon. Student enrollment is up to 234 for fall, and a grade will be added each year to round out a kindergarten through fifth school. But the 2020-21 year will be a bit different, she adds.
“We recognize all the complexities that go into families’ needs now,” she said. “So we’re offering a family choice model to choose in-person school as normal or a virtual experience. One asset of being a founding team during a pandemic is that we are super agile. We’re building the ship as it’s sailing.”